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  • Excellent points, Stan. When I taught English in Romania, I always insisted on the ‘proper’ use of there is/there are. So, when I came to the UK and heard several people (including one of my CELTA tutors) saying ‘there’s + plural noun’, I was a bit surprised to put it mildly. I have no problem with it any more, but I tend to avoid it. Why? If a native English speaker says it, it will be perceived as informal. If I, as a non-native speaker, use it, I am afraid it’ll simply sound wrong, it will be perceived as a mistake. I may be wrong, of course. I’d love to hear your opinion on this – if you hear a non-native speaker saying “there’s a couple of issues with this”, would you think they have simply used informal language, or would you think they don’t know how to use there is/there are correctly?

  • Thanks for your considered comment, Alina. I see what you mean about how the variant usages could be perceived coming from non-native English-speakers. If I heard such an example, I would tend to give the speaker the benefit of the doubt and assume it was a natural, idiomatic choice. But others might not. It’s so common in informal English that the ‘mismatch’ might not even be noticed by most listeners most of the time. It depends also on the immediate context: some plural nouns may make notional agreement more noticeable. The phrase there’s a couple of issues with this sounds fine because couple is a singular noun (that takes a plural verb). In the similar phrase there’s two issues with this, the lack of formal agreement is more conspicuous, but would still sound fine to me in a colloquial register.

  • “Some prescriptivists would insist that a line like There’s two patients in the waiting room is wrong, end of discussion. But it’s more accurate and reasonable to just consider it less formal”
    It is certainly less formal, but informality neither defines nor excuses the correctness of usage. The concepts are not related. It would be fair to say that informal usage is always incorrect. That is why it is called informal usage, precisely because it is incorrect. If it were not, there would be no need to even mention the “Informal usage” phrase. In this context, “Informal usage” is a euphemism. If it had any real merit, one could employ the excuse of informality to excuse EVERY incorrect usage of language in every situation that it occurs.. However, that would not make incorrect usage magically become correct.
    “It’s fair to assume that these authors knew what they were doing”.
    I disagree completely. It would be much more logical, more reasonable and certainly more sensible to assume that they OUGHT to have known what they were doing but, on occasion, as humans do, they made mistakes. It doesn’t matter how many instances of incorrect usage by well known authors are dug up, that still would not make the incorrect usage correct.
    I do not understand why so much time, space, effort and ingenuity is expended in yet further confusing an already incredibly inconsistent and imperfect.system of lnguage conventions. It would all be much better placed in attempting to rationalize the imperfect ‘rules’ rather than undermining them still further.

  • ‘It would be fair to say that informal usage is always incorrect.’

    No, it wouldn’t – any more than wearing a T-shirt around the house instead of formal attire is ‘incorrect’. Correctness is not absolute – it’s about what is appropriate in a given context. Nor is ‘informal usage’ a euphemism. On the contrary: it is a plain and accurate description of language in use. ‘Proper’ usage is privileged, but most language is informal.

    Authors do make mistakes, but to claim that a grammatical structure used by authors, condoned by their editors, proofreaders, and publishers, and adopted frequently by millions of native speakers for centuries, should be considered a ‘mistake’, is to attempt to rationalise an untenable position.

    George Campbell comes to mind. In his The Philosophy of Rhetoric, he wrote: ‘It is not the business of grammar, as some critics seem preposterously to imagine, to give law to the fashions which regulate our speech. On the contrary, from its conformity to these, and from that alone, it derives all its authority and value.’